New View of Parenting: It’s Good for Your Career

Jolene Tornabeni, 50, started out as a nurse 25 years ago. Two grown children later, she is the chief operating officer of Inova Health System, a health-care provider with facilities in Northern Virginia. She attributes her rise in the ranks to being a mother.

“People always ask me if children didn’t stop me in my career,” she says. “My answer is: ‘On the contrary!’ I got much further in my career because of what I learned from having children.”

Without children, Ms. Tornabeni says she would have been more narrowly focused, more controlled and more controlling. Being a mother helped her to become a more flexible thinker, a better multi-tasker, more caring and more fun to work with, she says.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think I would have kept advancing if it wasn’t for motherhood,” says Ms. Tornabeni. “Today, my job is to be a change agent. I innovate and create. My kids taught me that.”

Not Polar Opposites

Until recently, most Western societies viewed children and career as polar opposites, as companionable as oil and water. But these days, the notion that there’s a Berlin Wall between work and family is viewed as unenlightened. In the New Economy, synergy can exist between professional and private lives. Business is placing more emphasis on service and communication, which makes such soft skills as creativity, personal initiative and emotional intelligence crucial to success. These skills are hard to learn through formal schooling. But being a parent can give you excellent hands-on training.

J.H. Nielsen, a father of two and senior executive at IBM International in Copenhagen, says: “Children give you direct feedback. Therefore, with children, your learning curve is so much steeper than with adults.”

You can even turn parenthood into a career booster. Ms. Tornabeni says she learned what works and doesn’t work in terms of motivating and coaching other people from raising children and now applies her parenting experience to situations at work. “Having technical skills is a great start, but the higher you go in the hierarchy, more ‘people skills’ are what you need,” she says. “I learned so much about leadership and management from having kids.”

I’m also among the increasing number of people who have benefited professionally from being a parent. Before my son, Cozmo, was born, I was a successful free-lance journalist in New York City. Since his birth, in March 2002, my career has taken off in a new, more exciting, direction. I now have my own weekly column in a major Scandinavian business paper and have sold pilots for TV series about innovative solutions to work-life dilemmas. As founder of The Inner Career Institute and a public speaker, I give workshops in corporations about how to create synergy between work and family. I work fewer hours but make more money per hour.

Clarifying Priorities

How did this happen? First, my son helped me to clarify my priorities: Time with him is so precious that I want to spend the hours I’m away on activities I’m passionate about. Besides, becoming a mother bumped me out of my own crib, so to speak. Before he was born, I could devote endless hours to my work, and I did. It didn’t matter if I spent time during work answering e-mails, chatting on the phone or running errands. Now I limit working to eight-hour instead of 12-hour days, which means I need to be more focused and better manage my time. I can’t afford to lack energy, so I have replaced coffee, sugar, and cigarettes — which used to get me through the work day but leave my brain unclear — with yoga exercises that I do at my desk to prevent stress and enhance my creativity during the day. I have to juggle more balls, so I also must be more organized.

Lots of other people have acquired useful skills for their professional lives from parenting babies, toddlers and teens. I know because I’ve interviewed many of them while researching a book on the topic. What has struck me is that the skills competent parents learn are exactly the skills in demand in the new job market: management, leadership, time management, communication, personal initiative, organization, chaos-management, multi-tasking and teamwork. As the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., has concluded: “Commitment to private-life roles is associated with high performance in the more public sphere of work.”

The corporate world is starting to take notice. In Sweden, some companies give parent employees who are on family leave the same salary increases as colleagues in the office because they view childcare as professionally stimulating. Some even promote employee parents who are on leave, because they return better able to perform as leaders and as team-players.

Why Moms Work Better

Even in the U.S., business executives have noticed that parent employees produce high-quality work. Jack Maxwell, chief executive officer of Outdoor Sportscenter in Wilton, Conn., where 12 out of 65 employees are moms, told me he thinks “mothers are the best employees you can have. They are more patient; they don’t just move fast but think about what they say, which is good. They have much better work ethics; they are focused and effective, they are dedicated.”

But it isn’t a given that parenthood will be an asset to your career. It often requires a conscious effort. Here’s what you can do:

1. Investigate your thoughts about parenthood and career, and notice how they
affect what you experience.
If you view life through a lens called “parenthood and career are opposites,” this is what you are likely to see. But if you look for the empowering lesson in the challenges you encounter as a parent, you’ll find that parenthood, approached as a learning experience, can be the best school for becoming a professional star. Screaming kids can teach you patience with screaming clients, siblings of different temperaments can teach you how to lead different personalities, and so on.

2. Keep track of what you learned and are learning from being a parent. Record challenges — for instance, chaos-management, conflict-resolution and prioritizing — in a diary. Note how you can use what you learn in your professional life.

3. Speak constructively about parenthood and work. Tell your boss and colleagues about the synergy you observe between the two worlds. For example, I’ve noticed that I often get my best ideas when I take breaks from work to prepare meals or care for Cozmo when he’s sick.

4. Use your connections gained from parenthood to network. As we all know, networking is essential for career advancement. Your child is likely to bring you in contact with lots of different people, and parenthood is a great icebreaker.

5. Use your new priorities to become clear on what you really want to do in life. Chances are you’ll be a better professional if you do what you love, rather than just having a job. You’re also likely to think more creatively about ways to turn your dreams into reality.

A paradigm shift is occurring in how parenthood is viewed in relation to a career. Whereas it was once seen as a barrier, it’s starting to be seen as an accelerator. The two can complement each other.


By Kirsten Stendevad

Business, Career